Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Broach a Difficult Topic

Dear Crucial Skills,

As the mother of two adult children who are each very intelligent and gainfully employed, I try and stay out of their personal decisions. However, one of them started smoking during his high school years. The smoking has continued for almost twenty years. His father and I worry about his health but have trouble understanding how to (or if we should) broach this topic productively with him.

Uneasy Parents

Dear Uneasy Parents,

To broach or not to broach—that is the question. Or even better, how to broach without reproach? And it’s not simply a question of whether or not to bring up a particular topic, but also how to do it in way that’s positive and impactful. I find that when people are facing this, and similar challenges, they merge these two separate and distinct questions into one. And since they usually don’t have a good response to how to be positive and impactful, they easily dismiss the answer regarding whether to bring up the topic in the first place. In essence we think, “I’m not sure I’d be able to address (fill in your concern here), so it’s probably not worth bringing up.” We choose to “live” with the situation despite the negative consequences. So let’s tackle these questions one at a time.

First, to broach or not broach? The outcome from either choice seems to have a big downside—accept his smoking habit or ruin the relationship—especially in light of the current strains on an already weak relationship. In Crucial Conversations, we describe the pull toward these two alternatives as choosing between silence and violence. And in case you didn’t already notice, regardless of which you choose, you lose. So we end up choosing the more palatable option out of two bad alternatives—silence. Essentially, this means we’ve lost from the outset, before we’ve even taken any action. By choosing silence, we believe that we’re voting in favor of maintaining the relationship while really undermining the relationship we’re trying so hard to maintain. Let me give you an example:

Years ago, my wife’s sister and her husband had their first child—happy day for everyone! Well, maybe not everyone. In my wife’s family, it is assumed that her mother will be invited to the home to help take care of the new arrival. So my mother-in-law started to make travel arrangements even before the baby was born. However, these arrangements had to be undone because my sister-in-law had already invited someone else to come and help with the new baby without alerting her mother. You see, my brother-in-law had some mother-in-law issues. Instead of addressing the concerns in the open, my sister-in-law tried to brush them under the rug and created a whole new set of mother/daughter issues. This is a good example of the principle that what we don’t talk out, we act out. It never ends well.

To get out of this trap, try drafting a more complete consequence list for smoking. What do I mean by that? When faced with a difficult conversation, our head quickly volunteers to do the hard work of calculating the potential outcomes for speaking up and quickly saves itself from any additional hard work by quickly convincing you that a conversation won’t be worth it. We tend to focus on the short-term, negative consequences (like straining your relationship) and look past the long-term, positive consequences of actually sharing our concerns (like helping your son avoid a terminal illness). Relieve your brain of this responsibility by capturing all of the consequences on paper. When you’re able to consider a more complete and accurate list, you can make a more informed decision about how to proceed.

Once you decide the topic’s worth broaching, how do you go about it? Most often in these types of situations, my first thoughts are aligned with the STATE skills in Crucial Conversations. They provide the perfect framework to help people raise tough, controversial issues or concerns in a way that minimizes defensiveness and invites the other person into the conversation. And yet, how you describe your son in your question pulls me in a different direction—especially your description of his intelligence.

Many times, when talking with intelligent people about strongly entrenched habits like smoking, our approach invites defensiveness—even when using STATE skills. Why? Because we approach it as if the person needs more information about the negative impacts of his or her choices (the unsavory smell, coughing, emphysema, lung cancer, the list goes on). The other person has seen the ads, and likely know the statistics. More information is not the problem. Your son is already well-informed. Instead, try getting him to consider an insightful question.

Here’s what we’ve found: it’s very natural for people to resist when confronted head-on about issues that require significant effort to change. They hear your argument and treat it as an argument. That means taking a position, digging in to defend the position, and actively looking for ways to reinforce that position—which is not very conducive to an honest exploration. If you’re looking to create motivation, don’t start with sharing more information.

Bill Miller pioneered an approach that focused on influential questions. He found that exploration can be more powerful in creating the conditions conducive to change than explanation. For example, lead with a question like, “I was wondering how smoking interferes with (insert your son’s favorite activity or even an important role he plays, like at work, for example)?” This probing question produces far less defensiveness than, “let me tell you why I wish you wouldn’t smoke.” You’re not forcing him to take the opposite position from you, and it’s directing him towards something he regularly experiences. Get him to explore the implications of his choices so he is less ambivalent about making different choices.

These types of conversations are tricky and usually require a lot of love, concern, and patience. Hopefully these ideas will give you some options for approaching your son. I wish you the best in beginning this conversation and as you create the conditions to explore and reinforce the motivations for change that he probably already has.

All the best,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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8 thoughts on “How to Broach a Difficult Topic”

  1. Sue Runyon

    Once in a while it would be nice to have a follow-up article on how things turned out. In this case, if all goes well, one very possible scenario is that her son may say something along the lines of, “I’ve thought about quitting…” giving her the opportunity to be a supporter.

  2. Joanne Todesco

    I think the other critical point here is that smoking is a powerful addictive illness and needs to be treated as such. The decision isn’t to stop smoking; it’s to decide to get help to try and stop smoking. After that it’s a complex, multifactorial approach and may take a few tries. The nicotine addict needs science, support, and removal of enabling forces, just like an alcoholic.

    1. Allison

      Yes. Most smokers want to quit. (source:

      Maybe the parent could ask something like, “I wonder if you still enjoy smoking, or if you’d like to quit but you’re finding it very difficult?”

  3. Sheldon

    You quoted Bill Miller and his work concerning influential questions. I would like to study the topic some more. Can you list his books or other publications?

    1. Elaine

      I would also like to receive more information about Bill Miller and his work.

  4. Lynn

    Asking “I was wondering how smoking interferes with (insert your son’s favorite activity or even an important role he plays, like at work, for example)?” feels manipulative, especially if there is a history of conversation around smoking. If I was on the receiving end of that question, I would think, “They really don’t like me smoking and want me to quit” and the conversation goes back to entrenched positions and defensive postures. I actually prefer the more up front approach: “We really worry about your smoking and how bad it is for your health. We love you very much and want you around as long as possible. I know me telling you this may not change anything, but I did want you to know how much we love you, and why your smoking bothers us so much. If there is anything we could do to help if you ever do decide to quit, please know we are here for you.”

    I think that would be more effective. It may not change the behavior – only the smoker can do that – but at least the conversation happened and the son knows he is loved and cared for. And the REAL issue got out into the open.

    1. JennyG

      I agree. This more direct question and expression of love seems more likely to open the conversation well than to make suggestions that maybe the smoking interferes in the son’s life. And after seeing the son’s response, possible solutions for addressing the difficulties can be explored, if the son is ready for that. The relationship and safe assurance of unconditional love is far more important than quitting smoking, and may provide foundation for that later, but not guaranteed.

  5. David Birren

    As the parent of two successful adult children, I wonder why this is such a big deal. Why pussyfoot around? Just tell the guy about your concerns in a straightforward way without judging or belittling him. Then leave it alone. No doubt he’s heard all sorts of warnings, and they haven’t had any effect. So don’t expect that your words will, either.

    You could make it clear that there is no smoking in your house, but that he is welcome to visit at any time.

    Don’t overwork this issue. Treat him like an adult and let him make his own choices. He will, anyway; you might as well get with the program.

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